Since the beginning of science, doctors and researchers have been trying to discover as much as possible about the human body, and many groundbreaking advances have been made in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases. However, while scientists have sequenced the entire human genome, created targeted cancer therapies and developed a vaccine for human papillomavirus (HPV), they have not yet unraveled the question of how human beings are born. The science surrounding the initiation and mechanisms of labor remains unknown. Research dedicated to investigating this phenomenon is essential, since few solutions exist for problems such as preterm labor.
When women experience premature labor—which is the case for 10 percent of births in the United States—complications often follow. Since doctors still do not understand the exact process of labor, there is little that can be done to prevent preterm labor. Labors that occur more than five weeks preterm frequently result in miscarriage or severe health issues for the baby. Research teams at Columbia University, led by obstetrician-gynecologist Dr. Joy Vink and mechanical engineer Kristin Myers, are working to change this reality by studying the cervix.
The mother’s womb is where a baby can grow and develop, safe from the harms of the outside world, but the baby cannot stay in the womb forever. Hence, the cervix: the gatekeeper to the world. Like any good gatekeeper, the cervix must know when to open the gates, but also when to keep the gates shut. If the cervix opens prematurely, the baby will come tumbling out before he or she is done growing. So, before you trust a gatekeeper to do the job properly, you need to do a thorough background check, right? This is the essence of Vink and Myers’ research: A background check to determine what exactly the cervix is made of and how it stretches open.
There is currently no concrete way to prevent preterm labor. The most common attempt at stopping premature labor for short or “incompetent” cervices is cervical cerclage, a procedure that involves suturing a woman’s cervix closed, at times to no avail. Vink’s research is centered around understanding the biological makeup of the cervix, with the idea that cervical physiology is the key to more efficacious treatments. While it is known that pregnancy causes a change in the consistency of the cervix from firm to soft, it is not yet clear what compounds the cervix is made of or what physical changes it undergoes during pregnancy. To grasp these changes, Vink is studying the cervical tissue of her patients throughout their pregnancies.
Myers’ project focuses on the mechanics of the cervix, utilizing material-testing equipment traditionally reserved for engineering. These tools provide information on the stretching capacity of the uterus, the force of a baby’s kick and the physical pressures applied to the cervix, factors which may provide some insight as to why the cervix loosens over the course of a pregnancy. By uploading this information into computer models, Myers’ team may one day make it possible to predict early labor with the long-term goal of prevention.
Although the United States is one of the most developed countries in the world, its infant mortality rates are 71 percent higher than the average among comparable countries. Preterm birth and the associated low birth weight account for the second largest cause of death for infants in the United States. Therefore, research in the field of obstetrics is of paramount importance to the health of the nation. Increased understanding of the workings of pregnancy could create safer birthing practices and more effective treatment of problems. Safer births will reduce the suffering caused by infant mortality and lead to a healthier country.
Veronica Eskander is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.